(Please note that by “conservatives” here I’m addressing those who are more conservative than I am in the religious sense, not the political sense. I could write a whole other letter to the political conservatives I know, but this is not that letter).
A couple of controversies lately, some personal, some public, have led me to reflect on the divide between those who get labelled as “conservatives” and those who get labelled as “liberals” in a particular context. Some people disdain labels altogether, but they have their uses. Within the context of Christianity in general, I’m liberal on some issues and conservative on others, but within my own denomination I’d definitely qualify as a “liberal Adventist” and I’m fine with that label.
Here’s something I’m not fine with, and I’m addressing it to every fellow Christian who is more conservative than I am:
It’s OK that your views differ from mine. It makes me crazy sometimes, but deep down I do believe we need a diversity of viewpoints as we collectively grope our way towards Truth. We need disagreement and lively debate.
What I’m not fine with is the assumption — very common in Adventist circles, and I think within Christianity generally — that liberals are liberal because we care less about following God and believing the Bible. That we choose our viewpoints and practices because they’re an easier path, because we want to please ourselves or the world around us. There’s often an assumption that we lack your tough-minded commitment to obeying God no matter the cost. That being liberal equates to being “lukewarm,” and that the truly committed are always the truly conservative.
Here’s what I want you to understand. I am a “liberal,” by your terms, because I am every bit as passionate about following Jesus as you are — I have just drawn different conclusions about what it means to follow Him.
I know that’s hard for some to accept. I’ll give a few examples.
1) Let’s start with one that’s pretty Adventist-specific. I’m sure believers from other denominations can find similar examples within their own church culture, but among Adventists, how you observe the Sabbath is often a pretty clear indicator of how “liberal” or “conservative” you are. So let’s say it’s a Sabbath afternoon in summer. Church is over, as is Sabbath lunch, and by happy coincidence we are both sitting beside a beautiful clear sparkling lake with our families. You tell your children not to jump in the water because “we don’t go swimming on Sabbath.” Or, if you’re in a position of authority, you might just close down the waterfront at church camp for Sabbath afternoon. I, meanwhile, will do what I do every Sabbath in summer at our cabin: jump into the water along with the kids and spend the Sabbath hours splashing, paddling and floating.
Now, it’s perfectly OK with me that we have these diverse practices. You do what you believe is right and I have no problem with that. What bothers me is when you imply that I spend my Sabbath afternoon in the water because I am less concerned about Sabbathkeeping, because the Sabbath is less special or holy or precious to me than it is to you.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. I go swimming on Sabbath (when weather and location permit) because I love the Sabbath and the Lord of the Sabbath, and I genuinely believe that there is no better way to praise Him than to be out enjoying His Creation.
A trivial example, perhaps, but one that helps illustrate the point I’m making. On to weightier matters.
2) I take stands you disagree with on controversial issues — I believe our church (and all churches!) should ordain people to the ministry equally without regard to gender. I believe same-sex marriage ought to be legal and that gay people have the same civil rights that straight people do. You might think — in fact, I’ve heard some of you say — that I hold these views because I don’t respect the Bible, or don’t take what it says seriously, or that I’d rather follow my own wisdom or the wisdom of “the world” than follow the Bible.
In fact, I hold these views because I believe in the Bible. I certainly interpret it different than you do, but I take the Bible very seriously. I’ve adopted those beliefs not because they’re popular or easy but because, after careful and prayerful Bible study, I believe they more truly reflect the spirit of the Bible and of the way Jesus treated people in the Gospels. You can disagree with how I read Scripture and we can debate it, but please don’t do me the disservice of thinking I don’t care about what the Bible says or about shaping my life according to its principles.
3) When I choose to focus on social justice and on serving the poor rather than on “evangelism,” I sometimes hear the accusation that this is a soft, social-gospel emphasis, followed because it is popular. I’m not a serious Christian if I’m not all about preaching the gospel. I’m not a good Adventist if my focus is on feeding the hungry (without slipping in an invitation to an evangelistic meeting) rather than on proclaiming the Three Angels’ Message.
But the truth is, I take the Matthew 25 parable of the sheep and the goats seriously and I really believe that caring for the poor, the hungry and those in need is every bit as important as preaching to them. Doing those things is not “easier” than knocking on doors and offering people Bible studies — both types of service have their challenges. I believe social justice is a huge concern of God’s, which is why it’s my concern as well.
I could think of more examples. So could you. But the central point is the same in each one: whatever our differences, I am not lacking in love for God, passion for my faith, or the desire to follow His path.
I’m not arguing that I’m as good a Christian as you are.I’m probably not. That’s up to God to decide.
I often fail as a Christian. I don’t always live out the love that I believe is central to our faith. I lose my temper; I snap at my kids. I don’t read my Bible or pray as much as I think I should. I may not live my faith as fully and as effectively as you do.
But I don’t care about it less, just because my faith is different from yours.
I disagree with you on so many points. I think the way you read the Bible is short-sighted and often inconsistent. I think you observe the letter of the law at the cost of its spirit. I could debate with you for hours about some of these controversial issues on which we disagree.
But I always recognize that your conservatism, your beliefs and your practices, come from a place of great faith. Whatever our differences, I know that you really care about our mutual faith, that you are dedicated to God and His Word, and that you do not make faith-related decisions lightly.
All I ask is that you do the same for me.